Explorations in Saudi Solitude


The Riyadh traffic soon falls away, and by the time I reach the Mecca highway, trucks, campers and baggage-laden vehicles are stretched out, speeding into the desert.

A thousand kilometers to Taif. I glance at my watch—nine more hours. I drive on, maintaining a steady seventy, passing rusty pickup trucks; being overtaken in turn by Mercedes sedans filled with white-thobed Saudis and the ever-present, black-veiled figures in back.

After a few hours, the land west of Riyadh tapers into a long, seemingly endless stretch of tarmac bordered by hard rock and dark patches of sand. Providing the only movement in the beige landscape, a sand devil drifts along a gully.

No people or houses appear in the distance. Abandoned cars are scattered alongside the road, their rusting frames providing the only splashes of color across the monotonous scenery. The sun pours down on the windshield, and the temperature rises in the car. Rolling down the window, I tuck my head into the wind.

No landmarks bring difference to the landscape. From all its blankness I could be crossing the surface of the moon. Occasionally, camel herds appear on a hillside, and cars and trucks race out of the vanishing point. Fortunately, cloud cover cools the air. I continue on, shifting my weight on the damp seat, not wanting to grow tired yet when I still have so far to go by nightfall. Never could I open an atlas and find the spot I am crossing; not with my index finger, hundreds of miles at a touch, but mile after mile with my body. It takes reality to make this experience so unreal.

Here and there, like a delicate vein along a woman’s wrist, a blue line surfaces and drifts along a stretch of rock, then sinks into the sand again.

A mirage shimmers low over the surface of the tarmac. I coast the car to a halt alongside the highway and let the engine idle.

A semi-truck races past, slapping hot dust against my face. Once the truck is swallowed by the distance, the only sound is my car’s idling engine, like a mechanical heartbeat. I turn off the ignition and listen to the desert—one unending sigh.

After another ninety miles, a clump of adobe buildings spread from the horizon. Fifty or more low houses and huts shimmers in the dusty light. No trees encircle the village. No shade nestles over the town. No telephone lines drape from house to house. The village appears caught in the imposing grip of the desert.

Inside the first crude building is a truck with uplifted hood. Two Yemenis in futas and head scarves squat on the fenders, peering into the engine.

Inside the next house, a red Mercedes is lifted up on a row of timber blocks. Leaning against the wall, his face glazed over from waiting for his car to be repaired, is the middle-aged Saudi owner. Behind him, covered with grease and dust, two Yemenis are engaged in a mock sword fight with tire irons. I enjoy seeing Yemenis in Saudi Arabia. Like the Seven Dwarfs without Snow White, they irrigate the desert with laughter.

Up the street, under a ripped and faded awning, a group of thatched chairs are arranged in front of a tilting, one-story structure. Cooking pots and coiled water pipes are stacked beside the entrance. Hoping they might have cold soft drinks inside, I pull over in front.

Inside, eight or nine wobbly tables are spread across the bare-earth floor. Behind the counter, two Yemenis cook chicken over an open fire. Scattered through the restaurant, several Arab truck drivers—arms protectively clasped around their food, heads dropped—wolf down lamb, rice and chicken. They glance up at me and quickly go back to eating.

As I sit down, the waiter appears, wiping his hands onto his apron. “Kapsa, min fadlik,” I say, nodding toward the chicken on the fire. “Ana Pepsi, shukran,” I add.

Nodding, the waiter leaves.

An old man and a boy, both dressed in worn and dirt-stained thobes, walk into the restaurant and take a table near mine.

In the desert, the skin ages quickly. The old man appears at least eighty. I suspect he is no more than fifty. His companion couldn’t be older than twelve. More than androgynously beautiful, the boy’s features are uncontaminated with the shadow of consciousness. He wears a constant smile as though it is a feature of his face.

Each of the boy’s gestures—wiping his chin, brushing off a fly, looking over at the foreigner watching him—is complete and freed of thought. The old man tugs at his grizzled beard, paying no attention to the boy’s presence, or to mine.

I have never seen a true aura before and can only imagine what one would look like, but a presence surrounds the boy, as though the desert itself were cupping its chaffed hands around his smooth face, protecting him, as long as possible, from the noise and sandpaper of the world.

The waiter hurries to their table, blocking my sight of the Bedouins; taking the order then stepping away, leaving the travelers poised: the boy with his left arm draped along the chair, staring across the room, and the old man scratching his ear then rubbing his hand along the stubble of his neck.

To me, it is as though they are the same person divided in half to personify the scope of human existence, young and old.

Their bowls of rice soon arrive. The old man reaches down with his right hand and began spooning the grains into his mouth.

The boy takes a bent spoon from the table and starts lifting the rice.

Seeing me watching, the boy smiles. “Mafi,” he whispers.

Not understanding, I shrug.

Sensing I don’t know Arabic, the boy points toward the old man’s mouth. “Mafi,” he repeats.

The time-gnawed Bedouin stops eating long enough for me to see all his teeth are missing, leaving only a round maw swallowing rice in the middle of the day.

Mafi,” the boy says again, then begins laughing as though revealing a wondrous secret.

No teeth. Mafi must mean “nothing,” I think, now laughing with the boy.

The old man looks back and forth at us, then starts chuckling.

Glancing over from the flaming grill, the Yemeni cooks hear us laughing and begin giggling.

In the corner, the truck drivers glance up from their food, trying to see what is so funny; when they can’t understand why we are laughing, they, too, start laughing.

Now everyone in the restaurant is laughing.

Suddenly, I see myself laughing with strangers in the middle of nowhere.

Solitude must be getting the best of me, I think.

I hoped it would.

 Zippity Doo Dah

Feet over my head in the plough position, I count to a hundred, trying to hold the Yoga position longer than my will; finally succumbing when I hear my body cry, “Enough.”

Movement at the corner of my eye. I turn to the side as an amber-colored insect scurries across the beige carpet and brushes against me. I jerk back as a burning needle jabs into my shoulder.

Jumping up, I grab Doughty’s Travels in Arabia Deserta Volume II off the coffee table and crush the creature. Lifting up the book, I stare down at the squished body and narrow stinger.


“Don’t panic!” I tell myself, feeling my heartbeat break loose. “Put ice on it. Get to the base. The doctor will treat it. It’s only a few minutes away. Stay calm.”

Pulling on my trousers and faded Reed College sweatshirt, I break the ice tray in the refrigerator and cram half a dozen cubes into a Ziploc. Pressing the bag against my shoulder, I race out to my car and drive to the Mabahith training base on the other side of Taif.

Fortunately, one of my ESL students is on guard duty at the gate; Abdurrahman waves me through, gaping when he sees his American teacher holding an ice pack to his shoulder.

Jamming the transmission into park, I hop out in front of the clinic and run up the front steps only to find the office closed.

I hurry over to the officer’s mess and find Dr. Naboo playing Parcheesi with a Saudi captain when I rush in.

“What has happened?” asks the base physician, seeing me approaching with the ice pack clutched to my shoulder.

“I’ve been stung by a scorpion.” I reply, dropping the Ziploc.

Dr. Naboo calmly walks over to study the reddened swelling. “Yes, you have.”

He shakes his head. “It must hurt.”

“It sure does. Can you treat it now?”

“How did this happen?”

“I was doing yoga on the carpet when it stung me.”

“You should not be on the carpet. That is the home of scorpions and snakes.”

“I know, Doctor, you’re right, but could you please treat it now? It hurts.”

“I’m sorry,” he replies, sitting back down.

“Sorry about what?”

“Unfortunately, I never studied the scorpion bite.”

“But you’re a doctor.”

“Of course, but when they lectured on poisonous insects it was Ramadan, and I flew home to Amman to visit my family.”

“You’re not serious.”

Dr. Naboo glares up at me. “I do not joke about scorpion bites. You must go to the hospital immediately.”

“Where’s the nearest one?”

“Al-Hada, but they will not let you in. “

“Why not?”

“You are Nasrani. Al-Hada’s only for Moslems.”

“Then where can I go?”

“King Faisal Hospital.”

“Where’s that?”

“Jeddah,” replies the doctor.

“Jeddah? Jesus, that’s a two hour drive.” I press the Ziploc against my throbbing shoulder. “Do you think I’ll make it?”

“If you hurry, Inshallah.”

Starting to leave, I can’t help it. I have to know, and turn back to the base physician. “Just for the record, where did you attend medical school?”

Dr. Nabob cocks his head. “The University of Tirana.”

“Tirana, where’s that?” I ask.

“Albania,” he says proudly.

“I’m fucked,” I mutter and hurry out of the officer’s mess.

My shoulder is pulsating, and I don’t want the poison to spread more quickly, so I force myself to walk slowly back to my car.

An hour and a half it takes to drive down the escarpment; then, at the bottom, to turn off the highway heading to Mecca, for Moslems only, and follow the darkened two-lane Christian Bypass to Jeddah.

After pulling over to ask one, two, three and, finally, four Saudi men for directions, I reach the hospital, park near the entrance gate and hurry over to the sentry.

“I need to see a doctor right away.”

The sentry shakes his head.

“Do you speak English?”

Again, he shakes his head.

As I start through the gate, he blocks my path. “La.”

“Look at this,” I exclaim, dropping the icepack and pointing toward the angry red lump on my shoulder.

The guard’s eyes widen.

“Scorpion sting, get it?” I ask, making a pincer motion with my thumb and index finger.

No response.

The hell with it, I’m not dying out here. I start to step around him,

when he brings his rifle up to port-arms, blocking my path. “La!”

Turning away, I run along the metal fence surrounding the hospital, scanning the lighted rooms, and trying to spot a Western doctor.  “Help! Help!” I call out.

Saudi faces peer down at me.

“I’m an American and I’ve been stung by a scorpion!”

Hearing me, the guard hurries down from the gate and begins pushing me back toward my car.

“Please help me!” I call up to the peering faces.

The guard thrusts me against the side of my car.

“Hold on there!” someone shouts with an English accent.

The guard and I turn as a sandy-haired doctor in a white smock comes down the hill toward the gate. “Death yadkhil!” he orders the guard.

Angrily, the Saudi steps back, letting me enter the hospital grounds.

“What seems to be the trouble?” the doctor asks me.

I drop the ice bag. “A scorpion stung me.”

“How long ago?” he asks, squinting at the swelling on my shoulder.

“Almost two hours.”

“What color was it?”

“Amber, why?

The Doctor scowls. “That’s the most toxic species in the Kingdom. Most people die within an hour. You’re lucky to have made it here.”

I freeze in my steps.

Seeing my expression, the doctor grins. “Just kidding, old man. Come on, we’ll freeze the bite and give you an anti-toxin. You’ll be fine.”

As we start into the hospital, I glance over at the doctor. “You’ve been here for a while, huh?”

“How’d you know, my Arabic?”

“No, you’ve got the Saudi gallows humor down pat.”

“Yes, people do tell me that.”

After cleaning the wound and giving me two injections, one an anti-toxin and the other an anti-biotic, Dr. Mepham invites me downstairs for tea.

I could be anywhere in Europe or America, sitting in the midst of the busy cafeteria, with European nurses chatting at a nearby table, Western music playing over the speaker, and hamburgers and chocolate cake appearing along the serving line.

“It’s like being back in the Western world, isn’t it?” I ask.

“Yes, a bit. Actually, it’s why most of us never leave the hospital grounds. We come down, do our three months, and fly home.”

“Three months, that’s all?”

“Yes, I’m due to rotate in ten days. How long you been here?”

“Eight months.”

“Oh, I say, that is a long time. How many vacations so far?”

“None, but I’m going out in September. My friend was here for eighteen months without leaving.”

“How did he do it?” asks the doctor.

“He didn’t. He went mad, I think.”


“Well, it could have been an act, pretending to talk like his birds.”


“His six cockatoos. Skip gave up trying to teach them English, so he started imitating them, you know, ‘kaa, kaa,’ and all that.”

The doctor laughs.

“You’re right, it’s funny at first, but he was General Neffel’s pilot and when Skip showed up at the airport talking like a Cockatoo, well, the General said he was Magenour, and had him deported the next morning.”

“Where exactly do you work?” asked Dr. Mepham.

“At a secret base on the other side of Taif.”


“Not me. I’m just an English teacher.”

“Sounds exciting… men talking like birds, scorpion bites.”

A svelte blonde-haired nurse in blue scrubs passes by the table. “Yes,” I reply, unabashedly admiring her figure, “but I haven’t seen any Western women in a long time. You wouldn’t happen to know some single nurse who would like to meet a friendly American?”

“I’d be happy to introduce you to one… but I’m afraid they’re all spoken for.”

“You’re sure?”

“Believe me, ” he says, “doctors are human, too.”

I finish my tea.” I don’t mean to be rude, but how much do I owe you?”

“Don’t be silly. It was instructive, first scorpion bite I’ve treated.”

“Thanks again. You should come up to Taif and talk to the doctor at the base. He never learned to treat scorpion stings. Can you believe that?”

“Easily in the Kingdom. Lucky he didn’t try to treat you. You might be dead now.”

“That’s reassuring, Doctor.” I get up, shake hands and glance again at the nurses. “It’s nice to see how the other half lives.”

“Anytime you’re sick, drop by. Have the guard page me.”

“Thanks, I might take you up on it. You do psychiatry as well?”

He shook his head. “‘Fraid that’s not my bailiwick.”

“Too bad. I’d drive down every day.”

“That bad up there, is it?”

“An infidel living alone in Taif is a sobering—pun intended—solitary experience… like a free-fall into stalled time. But I’ll make it to the end of my year-contract, now more than ever thanks to you. So long, Doctor.”

I start through the cafeteria then yield to temptation and veer over to the coffee table where four English nurses are eating.

As I approach, they look up.

“I just came over to say hello.”

They stare at me without responding.

“I live up in Taif and haven’t talked to a Western woman in months.”

Not one replies.

“I’m an American teacher. I just want to say hello.”

In silence, they continue staring at me, more aptly at my crotch.

I follow their fixed gaze down.

Oh my, oh my, my zipper is wide open.

Drenched in shame, I hurry out of the cafeteria.

Driving back to Taif, I keep imagining how the nurses must have felt seeing me. No wonder they didn’t respond. They must think I’m a loony flasher.

I laugh. Well, if the shoe fits…

All week at the base, I avoid Dr. Naboo. He must sense my hostility, for whenever he comes into the officer’s mess hall, he sits at another table with his back to me as though I am a survivor of his incompetence.

And every night after returning home, I can’t help wondering: Do scorpions travel in pairs?

Wall Flower

They must have arrived in Taif during the night. In the morning the shutters of the house across the street are open, and a white Toyota is parked in the driveway.  Inside the walled courtyard, a white-bearded Saudi man is dozing in a lawn chair.

Later, passing by the living room window, I glance over at my neighbor’s house. The man is reading on the shaded porch as a young Asian woman serves him tea. When the Saudi takes the glass without looking up at the girl, I assume she is his servant.

I study her smooth face, the slender arms under the long-sleeved white blouse and her plain, loose-fitting brown skirt. She is bare-footed, with cocoa brown skin. No more than twenty-five, she appears Indonesian or Malaysian. The maid wears no jewelry as she moves down the porch, mopping tiles and sweeping steps.

Returning from school at dusk, I find the Saudi’s house lighted and hear men conversing inside.

Going into my apartment, I wait to turn on the lights—and stand in the darkness watching the maid arrange table and chairs for dinner in the garden. Three Saudi men appear with the owner on the porch as the maid carries out dishes and silverware to set the table. She works for several minutes, then, apparently finished, goes to the gate, opens it, and walks into the street.

She peers both ways and sets down on the marble steps. Dropping her head onto her palms, she leans forward on her knees and stares into the dusty street.

Sunset, stretches of shadow slice across the building but do not touch her. She seems woven of patience, like someone waiting beside a river for a leaf or raft to float by—there is only dust.

She looks so bored for someone so young and lovely, and where is her life?

The woman reaches up and pulls the band from her hair. The black tresses shimmer down over her shoulders. Shaking her head to free the loose strands of hair, the maid stares into the dust.

Reaching down, she takes a pebble from the street and rubs it back and forth, until the sun sinks deeper and deeper behind the mountains.

Then a man calls in Arabic from the house.

The maid drops the pebble, puts her hair back into a tight bun and goes inside.

The next afternoon, the woman is scrubbing the tiles of the patio when I leave to go shopping.

When I return, she is sitting the front steps in her spot. It is as though sunset is her time of rest between chores.

She must notice me looking in her direction. I know it would be too risky for me, an American man, to cross the street and begin speaking to her. If caught together, the Saudi would punish us both. As an American, I simply would be transferred back to Riyadh. The girl would be beaten, or fired and sent home without pay—so I make no sign that I see her. After all, this is Saudi Arabia, and someone is always watching.

Back inside the apartment, I can’t help admiring the way she sits motionless on the stoop, without an expression, staring at the road and the sky as though she were waiting without waiting.

Her only doorway to the day is its end. Maybe she came to Saudi Arabia from Penang or Djakarta to overcome a bad love affair and get away for a while in the Middle East. I doubt it. She is far too lovely to flee any suitor but one—poverty.

She is a princess trapped in someone else’s castle, and I, the infidel living across the street, am no knight to rescue her.

I don’t see the maid for a few days.

This morning, on the way to the secret base where I teach, I glimpse her polishing the gate.

Getting into the car, I shift the rear-mirror until I can see her moving her slender arm along the copper entrance, then I drive away, watching her recede then disappear inside the aperture of glass.

Later, on the way back from work, I stop beside the water tower, climb out, and pluck a red wild flower from beside the road.

I drive back to the apartment and park.

As casually as possible, I cross the road, stick the flower into the gate between the hinges and the wall, above the steps where the woman sits every afternoon, then I return to my sterile abode.

At sunset, she walks out on the porch, hangs a dust rag on the metal awning and opens the gate. At first, she doesn’t see my offering. She merely leans back against the metal entrance, staring at the light dissolving over the hills beyond Taif. Then she notices the red flower.

Reaching over, she brushes her hand against the petal. Leaning closer, she sees it is not growing from the stone, but planted in the crack of cement.

Gently, she takes the flower and pries it loose, then grips the stem in her hand.

For a minute her eyes roam up and down the street, from the mosque at the corner, to the small grocery down the block, before her gaze fixes on the window where I sit watching her.

I know she can’t see me through the tinted window. Besides, the sun is behind the roof and she has to cup her hand to look in my direction. After a moment, she whispers something and tucks the flower down the front of her blouse.

Rising, she walks back inside the house, pausing to glance back before disappearing from sight.

If my window were frosted, I would draw a heart where she stood holding the flower.

Memory must do.